Exhibit of the week
T.C. Cannon: On the Edge of America
National Museum of the American Indian, New York City, through Sept. 16
“He may have been born at the edge of America, but T.C. Cannon belongs at the center,” said John Dorfman in Art & Antiques. Only 19 when he created the 1966 painting widely credited with kicking off the New Indian Art movement, the Oklahoma native died in a car accident just 12 years later, leaving behind a vibrant body of work that has too rarely been exhibited. Finally, after a three-decade wait, a new retrospective has been traveling the country, introducing a new generation to his drawings, poems, Bob Dylan–inspired songs, and 30 of his roughly 50 major paintings. “Together the nearly 90 works on view reveal a masterful painter and a voracious mind fully engaged not only with his own Native American culture and history but also with the diversity of mainstream American culture as it went through the transformative turbulence of the 1960s and ’70s.”
Early success didn’t spoil Cannon, said Cate McQuaid in The Boston Globe. Raised in farming country by a Caddo mother and half-Kiowa father, he showed enough talent as a teenager that he was sent to Santa Fe to attend a new arts college funded by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Inspired by his exposure there to van Gogh and Matisse, he began creating such bold figurative works as his 1966 benchmark, Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues. As in later works, the painting’s two abstracted seated figures, who appear to be waiting at a bus stop, read as indigenous but blend traditional tribal dress with modern clothing and mannerisms. A year later, Cannon enlisted in the Army and wound up winning two bronze medals while serving in Vietnam in 1968, but the violence he witnessed there “took root in his bones.” His paintings didn’t grow dark, though. Instead, there’s “something buoyant and catchy” about Cannon’s ’70s paintings, as if they’re celebrating Native American resiliency while shuddering at the legacies of U.S. colonialism.
This superbly curated exhibition “could not be better timed,” said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. It reintroduces us to an artist long obscured because of problems with his estate, and the work “gains drama from a perfect storm of relevance,” tapping a new interest in figuration while “usefully complicating” current conversations about identity politics. In 1970, Cannon painted Soldiers, a figure posed as if crucified and divided in two—half a 19th-century U.S. cavalryman and half an indigenous man who could belong to either the same era or the painter’s own. If he had lived longer, Cannon “might have made an improving difference in American artistic and even political culture.” Should we take to heart this exciting show, “he may yet do so.” ■